Real Religious Pluralism

Here on the west coast of Canada we live in a chain of port cities. People from all over the world land here; we bring with us our languages, our foods, our clothing, our music. We bring the religious traditions that emerged from our previous ways of life. As my friend Amar Singh – a musician, a practicing Sikh and a great optimist – says, “Wherever you come from, you can find your ethnic community here to help you get started.”

Tension between ethnic communities does arise. After all, the only way to never have conflict with someone is not to interact with them. But we try to understand the specific causes and deal with them. Maybe the tensions are economic, and we need fairer business and tax laws. Maybe the tensions concern workplace accommodation of religious practice, and we need better education or clear professional guidelines for negotiating compromise.

Of course, few of us live only within our own ethnic communities. We work together, shop together, go to school together. We learn from Indigenous communities and from earlier settlers. Slowly, and with legal support, we are creating a society that has room for multiple religious communities without favoring any single tradition. Ideally, everyone will be able to celebrate their holidays, wear their clothing, recite their prayers – and somehow, out of the chaos, we will make it all work.

We do not know yet how it will work. But we do know that religious communities have to take the lead. We need to get to know one another. We need to identify our shared values, recognize our differences, and learn from one another how to balance our commitments to truth and peace in the interest of peaceful, civil society. We need to educate our youth and our leaders in tolerance, welcome and compromise.

Together we need to safeguard the incredible work that religious communities do in society. We offer people a philosophy to live by. A sense of identity that connects us with generations past and future. Companionship through life’s trials, transitions, and celebrations. Ethical education and tools for psychological growth. Food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, advocacy for the imprisoned. Support for the sick and money for hospitals. A window into hope and respect for powers higher than human arrogance.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, our Biblical prophet Isaiah taught that this is the proper role of religion in society. What does God desire, he asked?

That we unlock the fetters of wickedness, free the oppressed, share our bread with the hungry, take the poor into our homes, clothe the naked, and be available to help our own relatives, too. If we do this, our light will burst through, like the dawn, and healing will spring up, and the presence of God will gather us together (from Isaiah 58:6-8).

No one does this work as consistently as religious communities do. Our society needs us, and we need each other.

Photo credit: Arun Chatterjee, used by permission. 

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